It’s not every day that a cop gets to travel on the same train as a murderer. There were actually thirteen of us, all wearing little name-cards on our jackets, all booked for a week at Sister Susan’s Health Farm, off Govett’s Leap Road, Happy Valley.
Sister Susan had booked our seats for us. I didn’t know any of my companions, but they all looked older than me. I’m forty-five, but I flatter myself I look ten years younger — thanks to daily workouts in the gym. Lately, though, I’d been feeling a bit seedy. Working for the Miami Police Department rates as not exactly the most restful of occupations. That’s why I answered Sister Susan’s advertisement in The Miami Sun-Times — the one with the big heading: Take a Refresher Course in Sunny Australia: THE HAPPY VALLEY HEALTH WAY IS THE NATURAL WAY! Sister Susan promised to clean out our systems, revitalize tired cells and set us firmly on the road to health, happiness and low self-hostility. Mind you, the path wasn’t all that easy to find, let alone navigate. Passport up to date? Yep. Then fly from Miami to L.A. Then off to Sydney, Australia. Finally, the train jaunt to Happy Valley.
The health-seeker sitting next to me was a typical example of the need-a-refresher type. The name-card said, “E. J. Hopkins”. I knew him from somewhere, but I didn’t recognize the face. It was a big, square-cut, extremely wrinkled face, the folds of skin hanging in great ridges across the forehead and down the cheeks. His eyes were watery, light blue and dreamy-looking.
“Ever been to Sister Susan’s before?” I asked him.
He looked at me with his dreamy, light-blue eyes and his puckered face. “Mah first time, old soldier.” His voice was American – a Texas drawl, yet surprisingly soft, despite an odd habit of raising his voice slightly at the end of each sentence, as if meaning to say a few words more but then changing his mind. “Yours, old soldier?”
I turned my back on him. Although it was comforting to find a fellow American in a train full of Oz-dwellers, I don’t like being called “old soldier” — or old anything, for that matter. The train was gathering speed.
“Excuse me, old soldier. What star sign have you?”
Star sign! I looked at my neighbor blankly. His wrinkled face was turned to me enquiringly, seriously. Again I studied the name-card on his breast. “E. J. Hopkins”. Now I remembered that name! Star sign! He was one of those charlatans who write astrology columns for syndicated American newspapers. I sighed. “June 22nd.”
“Ah! Cancer!” Hopkins nodded his head vigorously. “Ah thought so, old soldier. In fact, Ah knew it. Knew it just from mah first glance.” Again that irritating inflection at the end of each sentence! Maybe Hopkins thought the affectation gave his voice an edge of sincerity? The accent sounded phoney too.
I turned my attention back to the scenery rapidly passing by outside the window. I didn’t want to prolong this conversation. As soon as we reached Happy Valley, I would get shot of E. J. Hopkins as quickly as possible. Somehow, some way, I’d always contrive to keep eleven men between him and me.
The dialogue from the seat behind sounded much more interesting. It was all about Happy Valley. I knew the name, of course. The Valley used to be a very popular holiday — even honeymoon — resort back in my parents’ time. (My mum was born in Sydney. Married dad when he was stationed in Oz during the war. WW2, that is). Anyway, I knew Happy Valley was located right at the end of the so-called Blue Mountains, where we’d soon be getting plenty of that crisp mountain air that Sister Susan promised as being so bracing for the health!
“Youngsters! How can you expect anything from kids? They don’t appreciate God’s world any more. They don’t know what living’s all about. No idea! All they want are their dingbats TV celebrities and bad-news pop stars!”
Force of habit, but I hate to turn around and look at people directly. The pop star disparager was obviously an old man from his voice. His reflection — though very blurred — confirmed it. His companion seemed a bit younger, though much bulkier. The older guy wore a gloomy-looking sports jacket, the younger a similar if brighter coat with lots of pens in the shoulder pocket. Mr Pens and a neat-as-a-pin little la-di-dah in an expensively tailored three-piece suit, were the only people in the entire compartment wearing hats!
“I ought to know the Valley well — born and bred in the Valley, until I was mad enough to run off to the big smoke,” the old man was saying.
“So you’ve told me,” nodded his companion with all the pens. “Often!”
“I remember the town was still called Selkirk when I was a nipper. That’s how long ago it was!”
“You’ve told me.”
“The valley? Now that was always Happy Valley. I can remember when they decided to change the name. The name of the town. It was big news at the time. The town had three inns and a string of guest houses. They used to advertise town and valley all over the country: Come to Selkirk and Enjoy Happy Valley. They said: Why waste words? They wanted it just plain and simple. Come to Happy Valley!”
“You’ve told me a dozen times.”
“Colossal place! You can’t beat it! Absolutely one of a kind. This trip is like a coming-home for me. You can’t tell me there’s more spectacular scenery any place in the world. You can keep your Grand Canyons. Keep your Yosemite National Parks — I’ve seen ’em all. Pikers, just pikers! When you look out over Govett’s Leap, it’s like the whole tourist-trap world come to the show. Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains all rolled into one!”
“You’ve convinced me, Russell. I’m here already.”
E. J. Hopkins was not to be brushed off so easily. He tapped me on the shoulder. His hand was as wrinkled as his face. “Do you-all know who Ah am?” he asked portentously.
I felt like answering, ‘Father Christmas?’ in my cheeriest yuletide voice, but I didn’t want to irritate him. I just wanted him to go back to his dreams and ignore me. “Sure thing,” I answered without enthusiasm. “I’ve seen your column in The Miami Leader.”
“That old newspaper rag!” he snorted. “Haven’t written for syndication for months, old soldier. Ah’m the new editor of The Clairvoyants and Astrologists Voyager, official organ of the Astrological and Numerologists’ Covern. In fact, old soldier, Ah’m the President.”
Phoney news with a phoney accent from a first-class phoney! To show how unimpressed I was, I turned my head and stared even more pointedly out the window.
“Sure, you can take away scenery! You can ruin it, spoil it, build it out.” The old man in the seat behind seemed to be reading my thoughts. “But not at Happy Valley. Not at Happy Valley. Fact is, they’ve gone a bit the other way. Time was, a man could get anything he wanted at the Valley. Anything! Now they’ve even closed the old Juliette Theatre — turned it into some sort of la-di-dah art-and-craft place.” The old man snorted. “I know! You can’t tell me! Used to be in the movie business myself. Yeah. Right up to the time be-nice-to-morons television and calamity-jane film critics came along. They ruined me! You know that? Ruined me!”
“How many times you need to tell me, Russell?” nodded his companion. “I got ears.”
“You-all interested in numerology, old soldier?” It was the pestiferous phoney, E. J. Hopkins, again.
“No way, José!” I said levelly. Maybe that would stop him.
But no luck. “Mind mah askin’, but how old are you?”
A wicked thought came into my brain. “Thirty-two,” I said quickly. “June 6, ’52!” That would really throw him!
“Fourteen letters in your name; thirty-two years old; born on the sixth day of the sixth month, 1952 . . .” He reached under his seat and grabbed a pad out of his briefcase. He jotted down the figures. “You-all are highly-strung, sensitive. You’ve had a nervous breakdown. You’re tackling Sister Susan for treatment for fainting spells!” he announced triumphantly.
Fainting spells! Hah! Never fainted in my life. What a quack!
“Right, old soldier?” the faker demanded.
“Wrong as a rattlesnake,” I said.
“You-all can’t deny it,” he insisted, staring me straight in the eyes. “Numbers never lie, old soldier. You’re nervous, highly-strung. Have trouble with girls.”
“Who doesn’t have trouble with girls?”
“You-all find it difficult to make friends. Let me tell you, old soldier, astrology can help. When Ah first started writin’ mah column, didn’t believe what Ah wrote. Ah just made it up. But suddenly Ah was really involved, old soldier. As if the astral forces themselves were a-drawin’ me deeper into the cosmos.”
Heaven help me, this guy really believed that stuff. The confidence man had convinced himself of his own veracity.
“Here’s mah card. If yo’ ever need help, Ah’m always at your service. And mah fees are super moderate, old soldier. Super moderate.” Hopkins indicated the place on his card where it said, Fifteen Dollars. “You-all feelin’ sick right now? You don’t have to wait, old soldier. Yo’ can actually feel the cosmic vibrations in mah hand, drawin’ out sickness, healing— ”
“If your hand can do all that, why go to Sister Susan’s?” I asked pointedly.
“Ex-excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing, did-did you say you were Erasmus J. Hopkins?” It was the guy across the aisle, a guy with black hair and glasses, dressed in a very neat coat and tie. Probably a very conscientious but very minor clerk in some government office. He had sat there ever since the train started, sucking at and whistling through an empty pipe. (Sister Susan had booked us all into a Non-Smoking Compartment.)
Saved! Hopkins now turned his dreamy-eyed attentions on Mr Public Service. “Yes, that’s me all right.” He puffed out his chest importantly and handed over one of his cards. “Virgo, if Ah’m not mistaken?”
Public Service was studying the card and whistling through his pipe. He seemed startled. He removed the pipe from his mouth. “Well, n-no. A-actually, I’m T-Taurus.”
“It’s all the same difference, old soldier,” opined Hopkins fluently. “Virgo and Taurus, they share much the same characteristics, Ah tell yo’. But now that Ah look at you more closely, Ah do see the subtle differences. Definitely Taurus.”
Mr Public Service nodded happily at this remarkable confirmation of his birth-date.
“Now, don’t tell me a thing, old soldier.” Hopkins was eager to regain lost ground. “Yo’ are on your way to Sister Susan’s?”
Public Service nodded with pleasure. (Where else would he be going with a name-tag on his lapel and sitting in our compartment and everything?)
“But Ah can tell yo’ve not been feelin’ tip-top lately?”
Public Service nodded again. (Really, this was too childish!)
“Yes, yes,” piped Public Service eagerly.
The fraud Hopkins probably tried that nervous breakdown routine on every sucker he met. Bound to get lucky sooner or later. I rolled my eyes towards the ceiling. As I did so, I noticed one of the travelers who’d boarded en route. Last into the compartment, he’d been forced to take that little seat at the end, which faces all the others. A tall guy with balding hair, a swarthy complexion and a black moustache, Mr Last Arrival looked a dead ringer for Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! As my eyes encountered his, we both burst out laughing.
It was almost dark when we finally arrived at Happy Valley.
After making great time across the western plains, the train decided to stop at every tin-pot station in the mountains. You expect a train to set down and pick up at popular destinations like Echo Point — but some of these wayside stations straddled the middle of nowhere, with not even a single house to be seen either side of the tracks. You don’t object if the train sojourns at scenic places offering great views of misty gorges and cataracts, tree-topped ridges folding into dense mountain peaks, plunging blue hills and distant muddy rivers. But the train dashed past these vistas, clapping on speed to rest for three or four minutes in some scooped-out ravine or store-encroached railway cutting.
By the time we eventually reached Happy Valley, we were all dead on our feet. Even E. J. Hopkins had quit talking stars, and Mr Public Service had long ceased sucking at his empty pipe.
“Which side of the station for Sister Susan?” somebody asked as we tumbled out.
Left didn’t give away any secrets, but Right boasted a grandly inviting nineteenth-century hotel, standing guard over a dozen or so stunted little shops. But none of us got a chance to sample either the hotel or its satellite stores. Three cabs were already waiting to meet us. Just my luck, of course, I had to be squeezed into the last cab, squashed into the front seat between the driver and a very debonair guy wearing a perky little hat and a gray, three-piece suit. Now this was a guy I wouldn’t mind knowing — I can recognize a three-hundred dollar suit when I see one. This neat-as-a-pin little la-di-dah was probably fifty or fifty-five. His hair was thinning and gray, but his face had the unruffled, self-assured air of the businessman who leaves all the worrying to the hired help.
“I’m Merryll Manning,” I said unnecessarily. He could read, but I wanted to break the ice and I was squeezed in too tight to hold out my hand.
“American?” he asked.
I nodded. “My mother was Australian. No doubt about that.”
“David Grey,” he announced. “I’m very glad to speak to you.” The name was appropriate to the gray hair and the gray suit, but the accent was slightly foreign. The pronunciation was perfect, but that was just it — it was too perfect. I studied him more closely as I made a show of looking past him at the scenery out the window. The cab had turned down Govett’s Leap Road. Eye-catching, maroon-colored shrubs lined both sides of the street. Their leaves sparkled like fire embers in the light of the setting sun. “A very attractive place, is it not?” he asked. His eyes were gray too.
“Ever been here before?” I answered.
“Once. A very long time ago.” He smiled. “I spent my honeymoon here.”
“At Sister Susan’s?”
He smiled more widely. “Yes and no. We stayed at Oxfarm Cottage. That is what it was called then. I believe Sister Susan bought the property a few years ago.”
“All changed now for sure!”
“I have my doubts. The Cottage was no cottage. It was a very massive place. Built of stone. Of course, the estate has all been sub-divided.” He nodded towards the neat lines of modern bungalows we could see on both sides of the road ahead. “Most of the very extensive original grounds have probably been all sold for a song.”
Mr Grey’s pessimistic air was beginning to annoy me. “Your wife coming with you?” I asked. A stupid question, but anything to change the subject. Sister Susan kept the sexes rigorously separated — a week of one, then a week of the other.
Mr Grey’s face clouded over. “Judith is dead,” he said. “You may have read it in the papers.”
I frowned. Judith Grey! No matter how spectacular her demise, it was an unlikely item for American newspapers.
“She was attacked by an escaped convict. He forced her to drive his car. I phoned the police. The car was ambushed at a police roadblock. My wife was killed.”
Sure enough, Sister Susan’s loomed over us like a massive stone sepulcher, just like Mr Grey remembered.
As we squeezed out of our cabs, a tall, silver-haired man came down the stone steps leading from the front porch. A typical Hollywood-style caretaker. “Carlo will show you to your rooms,” he said, indicating a sleek, black-haired youth at his side. (Sister Susan sure knew how to cast her characters). “As you know, we will fast to-night. Breakfast tomorrow is at six o’clock.”
Just my luck again! There were two dormitories of four beds each and one of five. I was stuck in the five. I put my grip on my name-tagged bed and turned to check on my companions. At least they didn’t include that professional charlatan, Erasmus J. Hopkins.
The guy assigned the bed in the corner was my Zapata laugh-mate from the train. His name-tag quoted, “Seldon Taylor”. A familiar name! But where?
A fatso Oliver Hardy type was griping about not eating. “It didn’t say anything about fasting on the first night,” he complained. “Not a blessed thing. The prospectus was all on emphasizing sustaining meals: Fresh, super-natural, from-our-own-farm food. Cauliflower in melted cheese sauce, potatoes mashed with parsley and fresh butter, platefuls of just-picked strawberries with lashings of cream.” Like Oliver, he was a massively tubby little man with a round moon face. Unlike Oliver, he wore glasses: Rimless spectacles, to be precise. And despite his covering smile, his gripe sounded a hundred per cent genuine. Lashings of cream!
Yes, there was sure to be a Laurel on hand: A thin, ascetic type. This one was labeled George McDonald. Although he was obviously no dumb patsy, he stared at Tubby as if he agreed with his every word. At any moment he would side with his pal, and he too would be urging on a revolt (or at least an assault on the kitchen).
“I suppose I’ll just have to go to bed, all famished. My poor tummy will grumble all night. You’d think, after that long, long journey, they’d at least feed us a cup of tea and a few biscuits. Just a few biscuits. That’s all. Is that too much to ask?”
A chorus of noes, led by Mr Thin-and-Ascetic. No doubt about Tubby. He looked harmless enough, but he was a born rabble-rouser.
“I’ve got a little something!” Zapata rode to the rescue. Drawing five Hershey bars out of his bag, he waltzed down the line of our beds, elaborately bowing and handing out bars to all comers.
Tubby looked at the Hershey suddenly thrust into his hand with an air of shock. Recovering his wits, he rushed after Zapata. “You’ve just saved my life!” he whooped, shaking Zapata’s hand vigorously. “I’m Pastor Kevin Holloway. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, anything at all, just you let me know.”
“Pastor?” asked Mr Thin-and-Ascetic, looking encouragingly surprised.
“I’m chief pastor of the Church of the New Kingdom in Swamilands. If ever any of you ever pass by that way of a Sunday, drop in! Communion service at ten; gospel service at seven. All welcome.”
Oh, no! Tubby was the last person in the room I’d qualify as a bible-basher. Usually they number ascetic types like Mr Thin-is-in McDonald or some Gloomy Gus with haunted eyes and hunched-up shoulders like the joker in the faded sports coat.
Zapata seemed to be less shocked by this announcement than the rest of us. “I might just do that,” he smiled. “You owe me a candy bar. I’m Seldon Taylor.”
“Seldon Taylor!” screamed the gloomy old Gus, throwing his Hershey bar on the floor. “You that snotty film critic that writes for The Messenger?”
“You said it!” preened Taylor, so pleased to be recognized he ignored the threat in the old man’s voice and action.
“You viper!” shouted old Gloom-is-Doom. “Not one film in fifty pleases you clowns! Not one in a hundred. You snake-in-the-grass! Drive people away, will you? You’re in cahoots with that crawly television crowd, and the country clubs, and the la-di-dah set. You skull-eyed snake! I could kill you!” With surprising swiftness the old man darted forward and began to pummel Taylor about the chest with his bony fists.
“Here! Here!” remonstrated Pastor Tubby, but stepping well clear of Gloom-is-Doom’s range.
Before I could interfere, the ascetic McDonald stepped between the old man and his victim. Grabbing hold of the old man’s wrists, he swiftly forced him back on his bed. All this time, Taylor was standing still, staring at the combatants with an open mouth, too shocked to speak.
“What was all that about?” I asked, stepping forward. I could see the old guy’s name was “Russell Payne”. The Happy-Valley-Is-So-Spectacular publicist I overheard on the train. I wondered why he wasn’t rooming with his bored, pen-laden friend. Glad to get shot of him no doubt.
Suddenly Payne began to sob. The tears ran down his cheeks while he rocked himself to and fro, clenching his fists.
“If you don’t want your Hershey bar, can I have it?” asked Tubby, retrieving it from the floor. McDonald and I both looked at Tubby with disgust. But he seemed oblivious to our stares. Without waiting for permission, he settled himself down on his own bed, undid the wrapper of Payne’s candy bar and began to munch away at it contentedly.
Old man Payne stopped his carry-on as quickly as he’d started. He looked up at McDonald and me with those haunted eyes of his. “Once I had a big cinema theatre,” he said. “It was the biggest in all the suburbs. The biggest, the grandest, the best. Worked all my life to pay off the miserable mortgage. Struggled even to send the kids to school. Seven! Scrimped and saved. And just as I was starting to sit back and count the takings, just as it seemed golden days were just itching to turn the corner, along came calamity TV. All the fun of a ratty fair, at home for free. A man struggles to counter a prairie fire with his bare hands and all the while these no-account film critics keep his patrons wasting their lives at home, or racing away to sports and clubs, concerts and circuses, summers in the sun, winters on the go! Critics! Parasites! Who needs ’em? Who wants ’em? Who’d give ’em a decent home?” Payne made another struggle to reach Taylor.
“So help me!” said the critic, appealing to all of us. “I never so much as even breathed on this clown. Never seen him, heard him or whittled away at him in my life!”
“Please go back to your bed,” ordered McDonald, seizing his opportunity to take charge without anyone’s by-your-leave. “I’ll handle this.”
“I was really looking forward to this holiday,” Payne told us. “Born and bred in Happy Valley. I’ve marked every rock. Know the twists and turns of every track, the depth of every pool. The caves, the nests, the hiding places, I know ’em all.”
“Sure,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ll be our guide.”
“I never even touched him!” Taylor was still protesting.
McDonald whispered in my ear. “I’ll need you to come with me.”
“Me? Where?” I asked.
“To see whoever’s in charge!” He indicated Russell Payne. “This man can’t stay here.”
For a thin, ascetic type, McDonald’s voice carried a surprising air of authority. And of course he had demonstrated an amazing degree of force. So before I could think to argue, I was walking down a corridor with him, looking for the manager’s office. McDonald seemed to know his way around. He strode purposefully down half-lit corridors as if he knew just where he was going. Sure enough, he soon came up before a door labeled: SR. S. DELAFLORE. Please Knock. McDonald did just that.
The door was opened by a very small, but very perky old lady with wispy white hair. A Ruth Gordon type if ever there was one. More neatly dressed though. An aged miniature in hospital white. White skirt, white blouse, white, unbuttoned cardigan. “Guests are not permitted to leave their rooms at night, unless it is an emergency,” she intoned in a thin, reedy voice as if reading an appropriate sub-section of the Happy Valley Motel, Hostelry and Boarding-House regulations.
“An emergency, it is,” snapped McDonald, attempting to push the door open, despite the woman’s resistance. I’m always amazed how these thin, ascetic guys who look as if a puff of steam will blow them over, oftentimes stand up to anybody — a grumpy, belligerent old man like Russell Payne, and even a bullying, miniature, spinsterish woman in a white blouse and cardigan. “I want you to move Russell Payne out of Room Five. He has already struck Mr Taylor. I will not be responsible, Sister, if he does him a further injury.”
“Is Mr Taylor hurt?”
“Not this time.”
“There’s nothing I can do about it until morning, Mr McDonald. I’ll ask Jeff to move Mr Payne to another room.”
Sister Susan then attempted to close the door in our faces, but McDonald quickly jammed his foot against the frame. “Now, please! Payne is quiet now, and Taylor’s on his guard. But once we’re all asleep . . .” McDonald shrugged his thin shoulders dramatically.
Sister Susan looked at McDonald for a long time. Perhaps she read inflexibility in his eyes. “Very well. I will make an exception in this case. Come in.”
Most of her office’s limited space had been commandeered by a large, old-fashioned desk and an even more bulky, wooden filing cabinet. Pulling open one of the file drawers, Sister Susan riffled through the cards. “Mr Payne will exchange beds with Lester Jurd in Room Three. I’ll write you a note for Mr Jurd.”
The occupants of Room Three had not yet gone to bed. In fact, they were being prevented from doing so by a disheveled, weather-beaten old salt in a navy-blue jacket with brass buttons (the uniform of a retired mariner). This relic of past glories was lecturing his three companions on shipboard methods of extracting oil from whale blubber. Pleasing to note, one of these unwilling listeners was Erasmus J. Hopkins, whose astrological talk had doubtless been drowned out by the old salt’s deep-pitched, gravelly voice. The other two disadvantaged recruits looked like brothers, both in their late forties, both with pear-shaped faces and big, bulging eyes.
“Captain Jurd!” corrected the old salt.
“Gather up your things and come with me, please. I want you to change beds with a man in Room Five.”
Captain Jurd looked just the type to expostulate. I thought McDonald would soon have another lively fight on his hands. To my surprise, Jurd knuckled under like a cabin boy. “Gladly,” he said. He swept up his chattels into a large Gladstone bag. “I’ve been trying to teach these newbies how to boil whales! Lads today have no spirit — no gumption!” He slammed the door behind him. “When I was skipper on the Queen Corby,” — he turned to the closed door and shouted through the paneling, — “I’ve keelhauled men for less! Cross Captain Jurd, will you? I warn you, Captain Jurd’s a dangerous man when riled!”
To my mind, McDonald had merely exchanged one belligerent old coot for another. Worse! Payne’s animosity was directed solely towards movie critic Taylor. Jurd was a type that would gladly take on the whole room. Nevertheless, McDonald left us alone with him, while he escorted Payne to his new bed in Room Three.
Jurd surveyed us aggressively. “Not much of a room, is it?” he shouted in his bullying, gravelly voice. “Why, even the fo’c’sle hands were better housed on board the old Queen Corby!”
“Would you like a Hershey bar?” asked Zapata. Maybe he’d stashed away a whole trunk-full. Some health holiday he was planning!
“Never touch ’em, son,” roared Captain Jurd. “Lived all me life on clean food and clean liquor!”
“Have one,” urged Pastor Tubby. “They’re good!”
Captain Jurd snorted indignantly.
“He doesn’t want one,” said Tubby, correctly interpreting Jurd’s snort as a refusal. He turned to Zapata. “Can I have his, instead?”
“Help yourself,” said Taylor, indicating his open bag.
I glared at Holloway indignantly, but the greedy-guts was completely impervious. He walked up to Taylor’s bed and looked inside his bag. “Can I have another one for later?” he asked. “I might wake up hungry, in the middle of the night.”
“I sure wouldn’t want that to happen,” commiserated Taylor. But greedy-guts guys like Holloway are immune to sarcasm.
Jurd watched this exchange with unbelieving eyes. “It’ll rot your teeth, son!” he roared at Holloway. He opened his mouth and pointed to his own teeth with a thick finger. “All me own, son!” he cried. “Keep away from the sugar — it’ll rot your gums!”
“I don’t care what it does,” admitted Holloway. “I just know I like it.”
“Bah!” snorted Jurd. “You midges don’t know the meaning of ‘like’. I’d like to get roaring drunk. But I don’t. Will, son, will power, that’s what it is, will power! You wishy-washers have no guts, no back-bone, no discipline!”
For once, Tubby’s cheerful face crossed with a flush of anger. “Steady on!” he remonstrated.
But Jurd pressed on, unperturbed. “Be like me! I’m satisfied with a glass of water and an oatmeal biscuit.”
Holloway looked at him expectantly.
“Here’s the glass of water,” said Jurd, indicating one of those old-fashioned carafes with its matching set of five glasses on the sideboard; then digging around in his bag and finally holding out a packet triumphantly, “and here’s the oatmeal biscuit!”
“Can I try one?” asked Holloway eagerly.
After a second’s hesitation, Jurd offered him the packet. Holloway peeled off a biscuit, took a bite, then sat back on his bed, nibbling away at the biscuit and clutching his two Hershey bars, happy and contented for once.
“Why didn’t you bring your own eats?” I asked him indignantly. I hate spongers!
“I thought all meals were supplied,” reiterated Holloway. “Besides, my wife wouldn’t let me.” Here he lowered his voice to a confidential, all-us-boys-together whisper. “I’m supposed to be on a diet.” Some diet! Four Hershey bars and an oatmeal cookie!
Taylor’s ears were not lacking. “Oh-ho! A wife? So they let you marry in your church?”
Holloway looked at him wide-eyed. “Don’t they in all churches?” he asked.
“Not in the Catholic church, for one,” answered McDonald, who had now returned.
“I meant Protestant churches, of course,” said Holloway.
“Of course!” sneered McDonald. Mr Thin-is-Belligerent seemed to be looking for another fight, but before I could interfere, Zapata Taylor butted in. “Oh? Yours is a Christian church?” he asked.
Another flash of anger crossed Holloway’s chubby jowls. “Of course it is!” he exclaimed indignantly. “You didn’t think it was some way-out cult like the Seventh Day Adventists or something like that. It’s not some sect!”
“What’s it called again?” asked Zapata.
“The Church of the New Kingdom.”
“Never heard of it!” snapped Zapata.
“New Kingdom? What have you got against the Old Kingdom?” sneered McDonald